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Gazing into my crystal ball for Ontario wine in 2017 (a nearly Trump-free post)

Ontario wine

By Rick VanSickle

Thank goodness that is over! What a year 2016 was. And I’m not even talking about Donald Groper Trump, the death of David Bowie or scary clown sightings in the U.S., no sir … there were some things right here in our own backyard that should concern us.

Such as: Did you know that the province’s largest retailer of alcohol actually spent millions of dollars (your tax dollars, by the way) and opened a bar that did not serve drinks with alcohol in them? I’m not kidding. Called Bar Zero, and now made famous by the commercial running over and over during NHL hockey games, the government monopoly that spends millions of dollars urging people to buy booze actually spent more millions to tell people NOT to buy booze. Hello? Does this make sense?

I wish I could predict that the LCBO would not do anything like this again, but that’s just not what I see in my crystal ball, sadly. What I can see, however, are nine predictions for 2017, some delicious, some political and some downright wishful thinking. So here goes (also see Niagara wine releases for Jan. 7 at Vintages at the bottom of this post).

All that glitters …

With sparkling wine sales in Ontario jumping 12% year over year, this category is about to explode on the local wine scene.

Sales of imported sparkling wine, which includes Moet & Chandon, and the rather lame justification for running this photo of Scarlett Johansson, rose 11.9% last year, while Ontario VQA bubbles shot up 10.5%, representing total sales of $4 million.

“Ontario wineries clearly have everything it takes to make great rosé and sparkling wines and to craft great brands,” said Astrid Brummer, category manager for Ontario wines at the LCBO. “However, the fact that VQA sales represent just 3.5 per cent of overall sparkling sales tells me that there is enormous opportunity for Ontario brands to steal share from the luxury Champagne or super-cool Prosecco segments.”

To that end, a group of Ontario winemakers has been going to school — literally — to learn the best methods for making sparkling wine from Ontario grapes.

Organized by Brock’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute and led by Brock scientist Belinda Kemp, the “Fizz Club” has had several sessions, even a trip to Champagne, as wineries gear up to improve their sparkling programs or begin the long process of bringing bubbles to bottles and bottles to mouths.

I wrote a story that was published in December in Quench Magazine (to be re-published here soon) on the emergence of Canadian bubbles and where it’s all heading. The future is bright for this category, and why not? It just so happens that the two main grapes for traditional sparkling wine, a.k.a Champagne, just happen to be two of the best varietals grown in Ontario — Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Prediction: Astronomical growth in the coming year (and years) as more and more vintners start — and implement — their bubbly programs. Of particular interest will be the traditionally-made, vintage dated sparkling wines that have been left on the lees for five or more years.

On top of old Smoky …

Where to begin with this guy. An antiquated, out of touch, relic from the distant past who never ceases to churn out laughable quote after laughable quote. Oh, Warren “Smoky” Thomas, I’m sure your OPSEU union (which represents LCBO workers, among others) finds you adorable and, I have to admit, you come across as that loveable, cuddly, slightly crazy but harmless uncle at family gatherings, but enough is enough.

Endless, ridiculous protests outside LCBO stores preaching a doctrine that is more in tune with 1916 (Prohibition) than a hundred years later have to stop. I think it’s pretty clear the motive for you at the end of the day is to keep the union strong, hold those members tight and seize that tiny glimmer of hope that it’s not the beginning of the end of your tight-fisted rule over booze in Ontario. You were funny once, but now you are just plain sad with your “hospitals won’t be built” “people will die” “morality will crumble” “drunks will run wild in the streets” “violence against women will increase” fear-mongering of what will happen as the LCBO’s stranglehold on booze retailing slowly slips from your grasp.

Prediction: Enjoy retirement, Smoky, you’ve been a good soldier — for both your union and the LCBO. Take that stand-up routine on the road.

I’ve Seen All Good People at the LCBO …

Yes (anyone see what I did there?), the people who work on the frontlines of the LCBO are not the problem, it’s the mega-bureaucracy at the top that refuses to change or grow with the times that is the problem.

I’ve dealt with and developed so many wonderful relationships with LCBO product consultants over the years. I have learned from them and appreciate the dedication they have to their craft. They work hard for their employer on and off the clock; they are always going above and beyond to help consumers find that special bottle whether it’s on the shelf or in Sudbury; they are proud people, good people.

Every product consultant that I have come to know over the years would be a superstar in the private wine world. Every one of them would be a potential bottle shop owner. Every one of them excels in a system set up for mediocrity.

My fight has never been with the employees of the LCBO, it has always been a fight against the monopolization and out-of-control bureaucracy   of booze retailing in this province, which has led to high prices, poor selection and an uninspiring shopping experience in stores that all look the same and stock exactly the same bottles of wine on the same shelves with the same prices over and over and over.

We deserve better.

No prediction here, just wanted to get that off my chest.

Orange is the new (insert word here) …

If everything goes according to plan, Ontario winemakers will have a new tool in their toolbox to play with. With the Ontario government likely to sign off on orange wine (skin-fermented white grapes) as a new VQA category, expect a boom of these funky (and colourful) wines starting with the 2017 vintage.

Ontario already has more than a few orange wines being made, but most are off the grid and sold only via the winery as they can’t get VQA approval for them.

The VQA took a lot of heat in 2016 (the fight with The Old Third over the use of Prince Edward County on its website, battles with critics over wine rejections over “typicity” and tasting panel debates) but here it deserves some credit. Once the orange wine category is approved Ontario will be one of the only wine jurisdictions in the world to have defined regulations for this style of wine. That’s pretty cool.

Prediction: I feel like the next big task for VQA is to finally define what appassimento means in Ontario. So many wineries are making dried-grape style wines but consumers are left in the dark as to what that means. Should rules be defined on how to dry the grapes, length of drying time, Brix minimums, etc., before a winery can put appassimento on the label? The answer is yes. Watch for it.

Milk, bread, butter, beer, wine …

I finally got to see how the rest of the free world buys booze (you forget these things living in Ontario for so long) when I visited the FreshCo grocery store on Kalar Road in Niagara Falls last week.

To be perfectly honest, I was impressed. The FreshCo store is the closest grocery to where I live in St. Catharines, not exactly convenient, but exciting nonetheless that a nice selection of VQA wine, Ontario craft cider and beer is available if you need it in a pinch.

The selection was pretty good, mostly larger VQA wineries, with a healthy and excellent choice of New Year’s sparkling wines from Niagara. The cider section had the usual swill from big international brands but plenty of small-batch Ontario craft cider (pushed to the corners, unfortunately). Don’t know my beers, but it appeared to be a healthy mix of Ontario craft brews and more popular brands.

Prediction: Grocery store wine and beer sales will continue to steal customers away from the LCBO. As they get better at retailing these products, and they will because they are better at it, it will force the LCBO to look within at their own antiquated model of retailing, but it will be too late. Ontario consumers are getting a taste of better access and selection from people who know retailing better than a government entity. It’s the beginning of the end of the LCBO as we know it.

The Cider House Rules …

Ontario craft cideries still have a lot of hurdles to overcome on taxation and access to their products, but they are headed in the right direction.

The one HUGE lift for the craft cider industry is the grocery store model. It is here that they can thrive in an environment not populated by an ocean of crappy industrial ciders that easily find their way onto the shelves of the LCBO. Small batch ciders in various communities can thrive at grocery stores and be attractive to consumers shopping for local products.

I love what Ontario cideries are doing, the myriad styles they are experimenting with and pace at which new cideries are emerging. However, they have been hard to find if you live outside Toronto.

Prediction: The better grocery stores, the ones with visionaries making the decisions on what they put on their shelves, will embrace Ontario Craft Cider and spur exponential growth of the category.

Hail to Vintage 2016 …

The long, hot, dry summer and fall in Ontario has delivered an excellent harvest in 2016. As one winemaker told me, it had the vigor of 2013 with the quality of 2012.

It won’t be a record crop of grapes, because growers are still feeling the effects of vine damage from the winterkill vintages of 2014-2015, but the vines that survived delivered a healthy and robust yield per vine.

Varietals across the board should prove to be as good as 2012 for the reds and slightly better for the whites (a bit more acidity and balance).

Prediction: 2016 will share top billing with Ontario’s other great vintages of 2012, 2010 and 2007.

The Niagara Taste Trail …

With breweries, locally-inspired restaurants, distilleries and cideries emerging on the already established wine scene, it’s time to create a Niagara Wine Trail to run in conjunction with the Wine Route.

Niagara is so much more than just wine and it’s time to promote this region as one entity that includes all the pieces of goodness that combines wine, beer, distillates, local chefs and cider. Niagara is better with all the parts combined, an all-encompassing region that is so much more than just great wine.

It’s already beginning to happen. A great example of the synergy that can be achieved can be seen at two of my favourite places to visit in Niagara.

  • Oast House Brewers: On a warm summer’s day I can enjoy a delicious Oast craft brew on the patio that opens up to Stratus’s vineyards, or sip a craft cider from Ravine Vineyard poured from Oast’s taps or even a select brew from a different brewery. I can then have a nice local meal prepared by El Gastrónomo Vagabundo’s chef Adam Hynam-Smith. How great is that, a global local view where the sum is greater than the parts.
  • Ravine Vineyard: This is another Niagara business that thinks outside the box and offers more than just Ravine products at its restaurant. You can get other winery’s wines from the wine list, local craft beer on tap and now, even a dry, crisp apple or peach cider from the winery’s own cellar made by winemaker Marty Werner.

Prediction: This, folks, is the future for Niagara. Forward thinkers creating a critical mass that is celebrated and the success shared by all.

A final note …

I don’t say it enough and sort of take it for granted that the food writer for Wines In Niagara Michael Lowe is a wonderful resource for this website. He has passion for local food and restaurants and puts a lot more into what he does than what he gets out.

Mike is a crucial piece to the puzzle that keeps me excited doing what I do with this website. We are about to take a big step with Wines In Niagara by offering advertising for local businesses (more on that in a future post). With that comes new writers to help cover this exciting and rapidly expanding region.

I welcome Jill Currie (all things beer) and Monica Kosior (event coverage) who have joined our team. Monica’s first post has already been published and Jill’s first is coming soon.

Exciting times are ahead as we put 2016 in the rear-view mirror. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Niagara wine releases at Vintages Jan. 7

  • Calamus Barrel Kissed Chardonnay 2013 ($17)
  • Marynissen Chardonnay 2013 ($15)
  • 13th Street Gamay Noir 2015 ($20)
  • Organized Crime Cabernet Franc 2013 ($19)
  • Reif Pinot Noir 2013 ($17)